As it teaches in the Mishnah, “Rabbi Meir said: Whoever occupies (themselves) with the Torah (Torah Lishmah) for its own sake, merits many things; not only that but (they are) worth the whole world.” Pirekei Avot 6:1
What Rabbi Meir is talking about, Torah Lishmah, is the pure joy of the study of Torah for the sake of heaven, rather than for a specific purpose. Sometimes it is nice just to be able to study without a specific action or mediation in mind.
Using that framework, I wondered, is there something about Shabbat Shira, about Parashat B’shallach that fulfills this objective. Upon closer examination I found that B’shallah is literally for the birds.
According to the Midrash, there are at least two reasons to celebrate birds on Shabbat Shira. The first is that after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites are promised manna. We know this well, they are told to gather it every day except on Shabbat. Yet, in the text in 16:27 it teaches, “yet some people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none.”
This begs the question, who went out to look for manna. According to the commentary, “… Datan and Aviram … thought this would be a good opportunity to “prove” to the people Moshe’s dishonesty. Friday evening they secretly distributed manna in the field and invited people to come with them Shabbat morning to collect it. The birds, upon hearing this evil plan, quickly ate it up. Consequently, when Datan, Aviram, and their followers came out to the fields, they did not find any manna.”
And secondly according to a Chasidic teaching, Maharal of Prague would instruct the teachers of young children to gather their students in the shul yard on Shabbat Shira and relate to them the story of Kriat Yam Suf … They were also to tell the children that at that time God performed a miracle and trees with beautiful fruit grew in the sea (see Midrash Rabbah 22:1). When the Jews sang the Shirah, the birds sang and danced. The Jewish children picked fruits from the trees and fed the birds. To commemorate this event, we put out food for the birds Erev Shabbat Shirah.
I will readily admit that I had no idea that this was even a custom. Now of course there is great debate about when and how one is to feed the birds (including feeding them buckwheat). However, is a conversation for another day.
Perhaps it is enough for Torah Lishmah today to learn that there is still much to learn and to be learned. And for those of us in the midst of this frozen winter and the pandemic resurgence, that one way for us to be able to become a little more centered is to both study for the sake of study and to take a little time to feed the birds.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff